Last week, an unsuspecting section of the music listening public, more accustomed to grim reminders of our new, and hopefully, temporary reality, awoke to the news that there would be a new Taylor Swift album released into the world. There would have been a significant majority of those who follow her career nonplussed about the names Dessner and Vernon as being involved. But the lucky minority of us who do know them, as one of the musical driving forces behind The National and the artist known as Bon Iver respectively, will have been anticipating what was heading our way in the midnight hour and knew precisely what to be excited about.
I saw the artwork, I read the tracklisting and her notes about the album and its conception. I allowed my mind to begin imagining the collaboration and how far it would go in which camp’s direction. Taylor Swift is serious pop currency so the idea that a huge record company, and the machine around it, would allow one of its prized assets to go completely off piste and into a metaphorical log cabin with a couple of indie sorts, more accustomed to Eaux Claires than Coachella, was fanciful at best. But it seems they didn’t mind, which is to our eternal gain.
Settling down to listen to it for the first time, in the dark, save for a candle, I knew after about 30 seconds of ‘the 1’ that this was going to be something very special. The opening song is the perfect example of the musical majesty that exists when you allow people from the top of their game, in their own fields, to get together.
Aaron Dessner is widely perceived to be at the wheel of The National, and coaxed a sound from Frightened Rabbit as producer of ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ that Scott Hutchison, a self proclaimed fan, had long wanted to achieve. Hugely impressed by Scott’s ‘Owl John’ album, Dessner expressed a keenness to work on their next venture into the studio. So it’s clear he knows special talent when he sees it and in Swift he has gone to the upper echelons of the musical universe and teamed up with one of the biggest pop stars in the game. She is now bonafide royalty, her story and rise to fame is also quite remarkable; one needs only to watch the old footage of her playing a live show on a boardwalk, the stage resplendent with her own homemade banner and very little crowd in shot, to see the contrast with the sort of venues she can now sell out at the drop of a hat.
The playful piano refrain is so minimal in the opener, that it provides the perfect foil for Swift to casually freestyle the words over it: “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit”, almost as if to introduce the album and tell us what she’s been up to for the next hour or so. It’s clear what she’s been up to is to run as far away as possible from the sort of music that’s taken her from that gig on the boardwalk to somewhere like Hyde Park, where she was due to play this summer.
Anyone stopping by expecting a ‘Shake It Off’ or ‘Style’ have come to the wrong place as this venue is for flannel shirts, beards (optional) and trucker hats only. Indie stereotypes aside, there is more to be found here for fans of Sufjan Stevens than Shakira. ‘cardigan’, the lead single from the album, has The National as its beating heart but the voice is unmistakably Taylor Swift. “When you are young, they assume you know nothing” could almost be a veiled dig at her music critics who no doubt did not expect an album of this maturity or indeed, an album at all, such was its apparent spontaneity.
‘the last great american dynasty’ is an homage to Rebekah Harkness, the millionaire former owner of Swift’s lavish purchase, ‘Holiday House’ in Rhode Island, a snip at $17m and here she sings of “the wedding was charming… if a little gauche”, which, as much as there is clear musical arrangement from Dessner, they’re quintessential Taylor Swift lyrics. It’s almost as if the tempo he provides gives her the perfect palette from which to paint her words and her intonation has never sounded better.
For the producer to be able to call upon one of his friends, and that friend is Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver, is certainly something of a fortunate thing here. As what has occurred is the most unlikely of duets that sounds reminiscent to the end credits of a lost ’80s romantic comedy. Their voices swirl and slow dance together throughout creating something really special indeed. This may be the song that even those with preconceived ideas about the pop star infiltrating the indie world will have to stand up, hand on the bible and state “Yes… this is actually very good”.
Of course a major player in Swift’s recent success is her friend, co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff who enters proceedings on ‘my tears ricochet’ and, reminiscent of the scene in ‘Jaws’ when they are proudly comparing scars, it’s almost as if he has listened to the Dessner tracks and said nodding “…I got that beat”. His tracks do not in any way feel out of place as they are clearly in the same vein, so much so that it feels like Antonoff has been liberated to be able to effortlessly pen songs that stand along side the others, in a musical environment that he is not normally present.
Indeed, in ‘August’ the album sparkles in a way that is rarely bettered, and elevates to a dizzying career high. At 3.10 when all the instruments come crashing back in on the line “cancelled my plans” it rewards in such a way that is almost unbelievable. “Indie folk” is a genre which has recently been added to her Wikipedia page as a result of this album, alongside the staple “Synth Pop” and there is no better example of those worlds colliding than here.
Antonoff stays on board for the next track ‘this is me trying’ another dreamy highlight which contains one of the real kiss off lines “you’re a flashback… in a film reel… on the one screen… in my town” addressing who? … we don’t know, but as with so many of her songs it allows you to position it as ‘your’ song in ‘your’ life, a talent that only really special songwriters can achieve.
The rest of the album is a veritable throwing of the ball between Dessner, Swift and Antonoff and each time one of them catches it, they sprinkle a little more stardust over this quite remarkable piece of work. That first listen seems a long time ago now, as a significant number of the ‘folklore’ record-breaking streaming figures can be traced back to a particular Glasgow post code.
It can be considered a small tragedy that this album may never be toured or played live and the mind does wander to thoughts of a Taylor Swift (and ‘new’ friends) show somewhere like the Usher Hall. One can only imagine, the aural delight of hearing ‘exile’ in that setting, it would be quite something. Indeed, in a recent interview, Aaron Dessner was asked about that particular duet and he recounted “At some point I felt like a superfan, hearing two of my favourite singers. This was all being done remotely, but it was one of those moments where your head hits the back of the wall and you’re like, “’Fuck. OK’”.
I can only echo those thoughts, not just on that song, but on the entire album.